The second test flight of Nasa's supersonic decelerating system designed for future Martian landings has been cut short after the craft’s parachute failed in a similar way that occurred during the debut flight last year.
Although the space agency’s engineers and their partners spent nearly a year redesigning and reinforcing the 100-foot in diameter parachute, the largest ever tested, the device first failed to unfurl properly before tearing completely away.
"This is exactly why we do tests like this," Nasa engineer Dan Coatta said after the test. "When we're actually ready to send spacecraft to Mars, we know that they are going to work when that big mission is on the line."
Nasa spent five years developing the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) – a $230m landing device combining two braking technologies.
In addition to the parachute, the decelerator is slowed down by a doughnout-shaped extension ring, which inflates during the descent to add surface area and increase friction. The double approach is needed in such thin atmospheres as the one of Mars where a simple parachute wouldn’t suffice.
Unlike the parachute, the inflatable ring deployed correctly during the test, which took place at about 6pm GMT at the US Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.
The decelerator was lifted by a helium-filled balloon to an altitude of 36,576 meters where the landing module separated to shoot up to 54,864 meters powered by a rocket engine.
From this altitude - about five times as high as the cruising altitude of commercial jets - the decelerator plunged towards the Earth, hurtling at almost 5,000 km/h.
The trajectory and speed were chosen to simulate the conditions a future spacecraft would encounter during a Martian landing.
Data from both, the parachute and the inflatable ring, were collected throughout the flight for further analysis.